I sometimes get asked on Quora questions like “How do I become a screenwriter?”
So here’s an answer you can read in five minutes or less.
Read at least two screenwriting “how-to” books
For example, you could try:
- How to Write a Movie in 21 Days
- Screenplay (Syd Field)
- Story (McKee)
- Writing for Emotional Impact
- Save the Cat (series)
- The Screenwriter’s Bible
I think it’s a good idea to read more than one book because you don’t want to get the idea that there’s only one right way to write a screenplay. Different authors have different approaches that you may find more or less useful.
TAKE NOTES ON WHAT YOU LEARN.
Read at least five professional scripts
You can often find them by googling the name of the movie along with “PDF.”
Your reading list should include scripts for movies that have been made in the past five years, so you can see what styles are current.
TAKE NOTES ON WHAT YOU LEARN.
One thing you should notice is that professional scripts have certain things in common. For example, they almost all have sluglines that look something like this:
EXT. RAIN FOREST – DAY
Some writers put sluglines in bold (which is a current fashion), and some don’t.
You should also notice that other things are different. For example, some writers use CAPS for objects and sounds a lot more than other writers do. Some writers write long, detailed descriptions of locations; others don’t.
One reason for this exercise is to get a sense of what a professional script looks like – what’s “standard,” and what’s more a matter of individual taste/style.
Another reason to read a lot of scripts (especially award-winning ones) is to get a feel for what “good” looks like.
Think about how these pro scripts follow (or not) the “rules” in the books you’ve read.
Follow along in the script as you’re watching the movie
Notice how words on a page translate into sights and sounds on the screen.
Notice how much detail is written out by the screenwriter, and how much is left to others (like the costume designer, set designer, or fight choreographer).
Come up with a screenplay idea/story
A good source for help with developing commercial story ideas is Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds.
It can be helpful to put your idea into logline form. One basic model for loglines is:
[Type of person or group] must [do or overcome something] in order to [achieve some goal].
You can also add details about where and when the story takes place, if relevant.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a restless farm-boy must rescue a princess and learn to use his supernatural powers in order to defeat an evil empire.
Create a beat-sheet
A beat-sheet is a short (1-2 page) outline of what happens in your script.
For example, you can use the famous/infamous Blake Snyder “Save the Cat” Beat Sheet.
The books you’ve read may have other models for this.
Some people don’t like outlining. They just like to jump right into the story and start writing. How you work is up to you. But you may find that having an outline will let you know if you’ve got enough story (or too much), keep you on track, and save you from wasting time.
Write a treatment or a scriptment
Again, you may prefer just to dive in. It’s up to you.
Try to write a screenplay
It’s a good idea to get script formatting software, like Celtx or Highland or Final Draft. If you try to write a script in Word or another standard word processing program, you may drive yourself nuts dealing with format issues, and the end result may not look professional.
Or, just can write your first draft in a notebook, and do your second draft using formatting software. (I decided I wasn’t going to spend money on Final Draft until I proved to myself I could finish a first draft by hand.)
If you finish, congratulations. You’re now a screenwriter. Most wannabes never make it to that point.
However, your script probably isn’t very good. Most first scripts are awful.
What if you want to be a GOOD screenwriter?
Then you’ve got a lot more work ahead of you.
Put the script aside
Don’t work on it for at least a week. You want to be able to see it with fresh eyes.
Don’t show it to anyone yet, however much you want people to tell you how awesome it is.
This would be a good time to start working on your next script.
Look back at your notes from the screenwriting books and scripts you read. Think about what makes a script good.
Compare your script to the professional scripts, in terms of format, structure, dialogue, pacing, description, action, etc.
Re-read the chapters on revisions in the books you read.
Read a book like Making a Good Script Great and apply what it suggests.
Rewrite again and again and again until your script is as good as you think you can make it.
Do NOT get feedback on your first draft. Get feedback on your BEST draft.
So where do you get feedback?
- You could try Zoetrope.com for free (swapped) peer feedback or pay a screenwriting consultant (like me or Screenplay Mechanic, or check Sites, Services, Software, & Supplies) or put your script on The Black List.
- Some screenwriting contests, like the Nicholl and Austin, also offer feedback – but you may have to wait quite a few months to get it.
- You could take a screenwriting class – in person or online – and get feedback from your teacher and classmates.
- You could form or join a screenwriting feedback co-up and swap notes with fellow writers.
Whatever you do, don’t be a douche about the feedback you get. Accept it with THANKS and graciously, even if you think the reader is an idiot for failing to recognize your genius.
And before you ask anyone for free feedback, read this – and don’t be that guy.
Rewrite again and again and again
Again, in between rewrites and while you’re waiting for feedback, put your first script aside and work on more scripts.
You could experiment with different formats (feature, TV, short, webisode, etc.), genres, and styles. Discover where your strengths and interests lie.
Get more feedback; revise; repeat
Repeat as needed until people who know what they’re talking about (not your buddies, not your mom) say it’s good, and/or you start placing in contests like the Nicholl and Austin and/or getting 8s and up on The Black List.
Keep in mind that it may take years, and many drafts of many scripts, before you get to this point… if you ever do. (Most people don’t.)
If you do make it that far – congratulations again! You’re now a pretty good screenwriter.
Here’s some more good advice from a pro screenwriter.